As the months of Donald Trump’s GOP primary dominance turn into seasons, with the inscrutable outsider Ben Carson as his only serious challenger, anxious party leaders continue to hope that one serious candidate might emerge from the gaggle of senators and governors running for president to challenge the cartoonish anti-immigrant plutocrat.
Finally, it looks like one seasoned political leader is beginning to rise from the back of the pack to challenge Trump. But it’s not who the establishment would have picked: Senator Ted Cruz is now rising in state and national polls, and has moved Carson out of second place in the all-important state (to those two men) of Iowa, where conservative evangelicals make up 57 percent of the Republican voter base. Cruz sits at 21 percent in the latest CBS News/New York Times Iowa poll, the first candidate besides Trump or Carson to top 20 percent in a leading state or national poll since the campaign began in earnest. And he leads the field on the question of who’s ready to be commander in chief, the poll says.
The angst of establishment Republicans about Trump is understandable. This weekend alone, Trump tweeted inaccurate and racist statistics on black crime taken from a neo-Nazi Twitter account. He defended the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester at a Birmingham rally by insisting the man “needed to be roughed up.” He’s continued to entertain the notion of a database for Muslims in the United States, as well as the possibility of closing at least some mosques to deal with the threat of ISIS. And he repeated the long-debunked claim that “thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey cheered the terror attacks on 9/11.
Even if party leaders are appalled by the latest escalation in Trump’s hateful rhetoric, there’s no reason to assume it will hurt him with voters. He’s held steady in every poll since the Paris attacks November 13. There is clearly a market within the Republican base—a rather large market—for Trump’s brand of hate.
So what does the rise of Cruz signal for the GOP primary campaign, more than two months before voting begins? Cruz himself has begun to gently criticize Trump’s rhetoric, telling reporters on Friday, “I’m a big fan of Donald Trump’s but I’m not a fan of government registries of American citizens.” He added, “The First Amendment protects religious liberty, I’ve spent the past several decades defending religious liberty.”
On Sunday, Cruz criticized unnamed rivals for their immigrant-bashing rhetoric. “Are there some in the Republican Party whose rhetoric is unhelpful with regard to immigration? Yes,” he told the Associated Press. “I cannot help the language that others use,” Cruz said in the interview. “I can only help the words that come out of my own mouth.”